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Prisoners call upon United Nations to investigate solitary confinement

March 20, 2012 |  3:21 pm

Calling solitary confinement "torture," California prisoners and advocates are asking the United Nations to investigate the segregated housing of gang members at prisons throughout the state.

They are petitioning the U.N. to conduct an inquiry into the conditions of the state’s "security housing units," which they say violate international human rights. They also want the Red Cross to be allowed in to visit the lockups.

"We have California treating several thousand prisoners in much the same way the U.S. government treats enemy combatants held in Guatanamo," said Peter Schey, an attorney representing hundreds of inmates.

Schey, who announced the petition at a news conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday alongside family members of prisoners, said the housing conditions are devastating to the physical and mental health of prisoners and are likely to increase their chances of committing more crimes upon release.

The petition was filed on behalf of about 400 prisoners, including Walter Coto, who is at Corcoran State Prison. "Every single moment I’ve spent in these torture chambers has chipped away my humanity," he wrote.

Schey said he was also considering litigation and a direct petition to Gov. Jerry Brown to end the policy.

About 4,000 inmates are held in the segregated housing units at prisons. The majority are kept there because they are gang members or suspected gang members. Others have committed violent crimes while in prison.

The issue attracted attention last summer when prisoners staged a hunger strike to protest the housing conditions in segregated housing units.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began reviewing the policy last year and plans to make some changes, including requiring more documentation to determine whether someone is a gang member and making it easier to get out of the segregated housing. Currently, a prisoner stays in the housing units for six years unless they drop out of the gang and tell prison officials.

Department spokesman Jeffrey Callison said the housing segregation is necessary to protect the rest of the prison population.

"They are the people who pose the greatest threat for other inmates," he said. "It is not something that is taken lightly sending someone to the SHU. They are sent there because of their violent behavior inside the prison or because of their membership in a criminal gang."


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Photo: Clyde Young, 62, who came to show his support, looks over a poster of prisioners in solitary confinement during a presss conference in downtown Los Angeles. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times